Dec 22, 2007
The Portrait from Iraq - How the Press Has Covered Events on the Ground
A new Project for Excellence in Journalism [Pew Research Center] report examines the content of Iraq war coverage from January 1 through October 31, 2007 -- a time which featured the start of the high-priority "the Surge is working" perception management campaign.
The Portrait from Iraq - How the Press Has Covered Events on the Ground [24-page pdf]:
In what Defense Department statistics show to be the deadliest year so far for U.S. forces in Iraq, journalists have responded to the challenge of covering the continuing violence by keeping many of the accounts of these attacks brief and limiting the interpretation they contain.
And as the year went on, the narrative from Iraq in some ways brightened. The drumbeat of reports about daily attacks declined in late summer and fall, and with that came a decline in the amount of coverage from Iraq overall.
This shift in coverage beginning in June, in turn, coincided with a rising sense among the American public that military efforts in Iraq were going “very” or “fairly well.”
The study identified five major narrative threads that related to the conditions in the country or the impact of U.S. policy there: the effectiveness of U.S. policy in action (including the surge); troop morale; the stability of the Iraqi government; the stability of Iraq as a nation; the Iraqi people’s views of the U.S. presence. For each of these, the study also determined whether these stories offered mixed assessments, optimistic or pessimistic.
The thread that generated the most coverage (14% of the all the stories studied) assessed the effectiveness of U.S. policy, and these stories tended to be neither distinctly positive nor negative in their evaluation. Four in ten were mixed or balanced, a third were pessimistic and a quarter were optimistic. This was the only one of the themes where mixed assessments outweighed dour.
Many of the stories assessing U.S. policy were also longer, more detailed accounts. Indeed, they represented 23% of the overall newshole studied, a much larger percentage than the number of stories they accounted for. This was the only one of the threads where the accounting by newshole differed noticeably from measuring it by story.
Often these assessments could be quite layered and come from multiple sources. A Los Angeles Times story from August 22, for example, noted that “With the district locked down, life has started to return to the streets.” Yet a few sentences later, the piece added,“But U.S. soldiers say they fear progress could quickly be reversed if their numbers are reduced.” And a few paragraphs following, an Iraqi seemed far less sanguine. “He invited journalists into his bullet-pocked home on condition that his name not be published …‘The Americans are trying, but sometimes they are not here,’ he said. ‘It is hopeless.’”
The next biggest group (8% of stories studied or 84 stories in all) assessed the stability of the country generally, and most of them were pessimistic. Nearly nine out of ten of them (86%) conveyed a dour message about the country’s direction. “I’d never go back … It is a city of ghosts. The only people left there are terrorists,” a 26-year-old refugee told the New York Times in an August 24 account. Just five of these 84 stories suggested any movement toward stability, and seven of them offered a mixed assessment.
And 4% of the stories studied (43 in all) related to the stability of the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. These tended to be negative as well. About three-quarters of these accounts (32 stories) described an unstable, incapable government while just six of these 43 stories suggested growing stability and five offered a mixed assessment.
The last two threads, U.S. troop morale and the Iraqi view of the U.S. presence, each accounted for about 1% of all stories studied. (14 stories on each.) Coverage for both tended to be pessimistic, but the numbers here are too small to reveal much.
Changing Public Opinion
To what extent has public opinion risen or fallen with changes in the news? At least since June, there seems to be a connection between events on the ground, press coverage and public opinion.
According to survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, there has been a steady increase since June in positive views about how the U.S. military effort is going. In June, only a third (34%) of the public believed the U.S. military effort was going “very” or “fairly well.” But since July, there has been a steady up-tick in that number, reaching roughly half the public (48%) in November.
This change in public opinion coincides closely with the decrease in press coverage of daily violence. As reported above, stories about daily incidents of violence dropped off in July, and remained low through October.
The public opinion also mirrors the nuances in the situation reflected in the reporting. First, the public appears to have taken note of the decline in daily casualties. The percentage of those saying the U.S is making progress in reducing the number of civilian casualties more than doubled from June to November (21% versus 43% in November). The public also sees more progress in defeating the insurgents, rising from 32% in June to 43% in November.
And just as the Project’s content research finds other messages of instability and chaos increasing as daily violence decreased, the public, too, has maintained bleak views about other areas of the war. There has been no real increase in those who sense progress in establishing democracy there (39% in June and September and 43% in November). And, when asked the broadest question about whether the U.S. effort in Iraq will ultimately succeed, the public has remained split with roughly half saying it will succeed and half expecting failure.